Challenge Contests - Justin Eleff
No starting pitcher is overpriced -- so give me all of them
Posted Mar. 19 at 09:20 AM
The only thing less interesting to read about than other people's bad luck is other people's dreams -- I know that -- but last year I built a draft-league fantasy team around Jose Reyes, Brandon Webb and Cole Hamels. The only one of the three who didn't hurt himself often made me wish he would.
As much as anything else, that's why I play challenge contests -- national games built around a salary cap instead of a draft or auction, in which ANY player can be purchased to replace any other player. Luck matters a lot less in a challenge. When Reyes hurts himself, you buy Hanley Ramirez or Troy Tulowitzki or Jacoby Ellsbury, and your season is not necessarily in shambles.
My favorite of the baseball challenges has always been the Diamond Challenge, now run by Fanball. It's kind of the grandfather of all challenges -- or it would be, if there were grandchildren left alive -- and I'll spend more words on the Diamond Challenge this spring than on any other game. I'll also spend the next paragraph giving you the broadest possible sense of how the game works, because if you didn't happen to know what a challenge contest was before reading this column, that seems like it would be useful. But, note: There are subtleties, and there is no substitute for reading the rules posted at http://diamondchallenge.fanball.com/.
The Diamond Challenge has its own player salaries; you use them to construct any team you like under the game's $30,000 salary cap, with the following position requirements: You own 18 active hitters (2 catchers, 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 2 additional players from any position) and 10 active pitchers (6 starters, 3 relievers, 1 additional starter or reliever), plus a bench, or "taxi squad," of another 12 players from whichever hitting or pitching positions you like. Scoring is rotisserie-style using the standard 5x5 categories; cash prizes are awarded at the league level (25 teams), division level (10 leagues), and overall.
Once you know the rules, the only trick is picking your players. These are called challenge contests because multiple teams can own the same player, and if they do -- if most of the top teams in the Diamond Challenge own Albert Pujols, say -- the results become a function of which team's other players are best. That's the challenge.
So let's talk players, and the strategy that goes into picking them. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that individual starting pitchers are more valuable than individual players at other positions -- and that's especially true given the Diamond Challenge's 18 hitters / 10 pitchers format -- so let's start there. I won't do the here's-why-SPs-are-so-valuable math again, but suffice to say that when the most expensive pitcher in the contest carries a salary of $1510 -- a single tick above 5 percent of the salary cap -- no SP is overpriced. You should own all of the best ones regardless of their salaries.
And I do mean all of them. You want a lot of starters. The biggest difference between playing a week-to-week game like the Diamond Challenge and a more traditional draft or auction game is that in challenges you aren't stuck with one group of frontliners who are clearly superior to your bench players. In these games you'll often shuffle good players out of your active lineup for just-as-good players, according to matchups. Also: according to the number of starts each pitcher will make in a given week.
The season is 26 weeks long. Most of the top starters will exceed 30 games started. That means they'll sometimes start more than one game per week. You want to maximize not only the quality of the starts you own, but also the number of starts you own.
Home teams win more games than road teams, so starters win more of their home starts than their road starts. Many starters are meaningfully better at home in terms of ERA, WHIP and even K/9 and other metrics. There are far worse ideas than owning the best pitchers from the teams in the most pitcher-friendly parks and just sticking to their home starts -- except that you also want to be mindful of opposing offenses. Pitchers give up fewer runs to weak-hitting teams than to strong-hitting teams. Thanks, Justin.
And the last of the basics, and this one segues neatly into our discussion of which specific pitchers I may own in 2010:
Remember what I wrote in my refresher piece about the American League still having the DH? That matters, a lot. Again, the American League ERA in 2009 was 4.45, WHIP was 1.40. The National League ERA was 4.19, WHIP was 1.38. An AL pitcher has to be better than an NL pitcher just to post the same numbers.
So there are only two kinds of starting pitchers I'll own from the American League, and as a general rule I won't own more than four of them. I want plenty of pitchers to play the matchups with -- I'll carry no fewer than 11 SPs in the Diamond Challenge, perhaps as many as 13 -- and I want plenty of those pitchers to be working without the DH handicap. The two kinds of ALers I'll consider:
First, any American Leaguer I believe to be one of the three best pitchers in all of baseball will make my team without question. In 2010 that means Zack Greinke makes it; the other two I put in my top 3 are Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay, both (now) National Leaguers.
If a different AL pitcher cracks the top 3 this season, it figures to be Felix Hernandez (who'd need to cut his walks slightly -- and his WHIP with them -- but at 24 that seems doable enough) or one of two pitchers who rank among the other kind of ALer I'll consider, which is ...
Second, the best pitcher on any American League team I see as a lock to win 90 or more games may -- not will but may -- also make my team. In 2010 that means CC Sabathia and Jon Lester may. It's not that Lester is a better pitcher than his teammate Josh Beckett at Beckett's best, but Lester is more reliable start to start and year to year. Sabathia is very nearly automatic; if he isn't top 3 among all pitchers he's certainly top 6.
Taking the best pitcher from the best American League team(s) is about maximizing wins. Relying primarily on National League starters otherwise is about maximizing my team's performance in the ratio categories -- ERA and WHIP -- that suffer directly as a result of the DH rule.
So call Greinke an anchor of my Diamond Challenge staff, and figure Sabathia comes aboard with at least one of Hernandez and Lester. Here are the other pitchers -- the NLers -- I'm thinking of carrying:
Tim Lincecum ($1510) and Roy Halladay ($1460) -- also anchors. The whole top 3 is automatic.
Dan Haren ($1440) -- tends to be drastically better in the first half of the season than the second (2009: 2.01 ERA, .81 WHIP before the break; 4.62, 1.26 after), which means I start with him but may look to dump him eventually.
Johan Santana ($1290) -- but probably not to start. He has his own uncertainty coming back from elbow surgery, but I also worry about the offense supporting him until Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes return and hit their grooves.
Chris Carpenter ($1180) -- just no reason not to own him until his arm falls off. In a draft or auction league, you discount for injury likelihood. In a challenge, you only worry when you're carrying several gimpy types, and I won't. But Carpenter was top 3 and then some for 28 starts in 2009.
Adam Wainwright ($1100) -- something tells me 2010 is not his year, and that premonition probably keeps him off of my Opening Day roster. Full disclosure: The last time I had a similar premonition about an NL starter was with Lincecum in 2008. He finished 18-5, 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP. I carried Matt Cain instead. 8-14, 3.76, 1.36.
Cole Hamels ($1070) -- but if I carry Hamels he'll spend the first week or two on my taxi squad for sure. It's easy to be down on him after a 4.32 ERA, 1.29 WHIP a year ago, but excellent control and extreme flyball tendencies usually make him one of the game's best WHIP pitchers, and I like that sort of thing in a starter with so much offense behind him.
Matt Cain ($1060) -- but as much as you loved his 2009, I hated his 2008. The grudge I still hold may be too much for my opening roster.
Josh Johnson ($1030) -- automatic to me, because I see him as very near the top 3. But I do see the argument against an extreme groundballer pitching in front of Ugly Dan & The Stonegloves. He's on my team; doesn't have to be on yours.
Jair Jurrjens ($990) -- although the shoulder thing makes me nervous, and I like one of his staffmates better.
Brandon Webb ($990) -- not on Opening Day, obviously, but be ready to pounce.
Ubaldo Jimenez ($980) -- is it that much worse to be top 3 in Coors Field than top 3 in the American League? That may be the only relevant question; in neutral environs, Jimenez is very, very good.
Clayton Kershaw ($960), Ricky Nolasco ($950) and Chad Billingsley ($940) -- lumped together because for various reasons, some as ethereal as the one that may keep Wainwright off of my Opening Day roster, I don't trust any of the three. As with Johnson, though, I get it if you disagree.
Yovani Gallardo ($940) -- as nice as it is to have no pitcher listed above $1510, we didn't catch a lot of breaks at the other end of this year's salary list. Gallardo is the lowest-down SP I'm certain to start with, although Jurrjens' staffmate (next) is nearly certain. And, note: If I'm certain to start with a pitcher whose ratios were 3.73 and 1.31 a year ago, that must mean I expect substantial improvement. Which must also mean Gallardo will be on a shorter leash than my other SPs early in the season.
Tommy Hanson ($850) -- Jurrjens' staffmate and, by all indications, every inch the proverbial phenom. Having laid eyes on Jason Heyward, too, if I were Bobby Cox I'd consider this a damned lousy time to retire.
That's my whole list. I count 12 names, plus the AL contenders and not including Santana, Webb, Kershaw, Nolasco or Billingsley, which makes a total of 16 candidates for as many as 13 job openings. Not a lot of drama, then, which I suppose is a lesson in and of itself.
Maybe you're scanning a little farther down the salary list, and your eyes catch on Ben Sheets at $750, or Francisco Liriano at $740, or even Jonathan Sanchez at $730.
I worry more about the quality of the innings my SPs will pitch -- most particularly as measured in ERA and WHIP -- than about anything else in this game. There is no question that if you guess right, you can beat me early on with a pitcher who costs roughly half of what I'll pay for someone who blows up. It happens every year.
But to me the Diamond Challenge is about which bets you are and are not willing to make, and it's safer to bet that I'll beat you with any one of the SPs I'll carry to start the year than that you'll beat me with any cheaper option you might carry instead. I'll limit my risk with high-dollar options, and when Sanchez proves all-the-way ready for primetime, I'll buy him.
Which is to say, even if you beat me, you won't beat me for long.
Next time we'll talk relief pitchers -- in this context, only closers count -- and catchers, then we'll move on to hitters at other positions. As always, I'm happy to take questions through firstname.lastname@example.org.
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